bookmark_borderOn: Writing Personal Essays

I’ve always done some personal writing. Blog entries are one type—early ones that were collecting poker learnings and hand analysis, now fiction writing learnings and analysis—and all the way back to when I kept a personal journal as a college student.

Last year the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation published a personal essay I wrote. I’m told it was one of the most viewed articles in that column in a year.

In spite of my fiction writing skills, it was not an easy process .

The essay I wrote for myself was 3,000 words. I submitted 2,000 words to the CBC. My producer asked for a 650; the standard length for those articles. I revised and submitted but was told it had lost the charm and emotion of the original. I asked that the 2,000 word version be highlighted for the best parts and I took that and revised to 650 words, which is what they published.

I always write whatever seems interesting to me. In the past few years I’ve been writing more personal essays. Maybe I’m getting older and more reflective—I am at the age when many writers make attempts at memoir—or maybe I’m just shifting as a writer, the way that I started out writing novels and then moved more toward shorter forms.

But in spite of my writing and editing skills, personal essays respond differently.

I begin writing essays the same way I start a blog entry; with a thought that interests me. Then I write a paragraph, which leads me to some context, or a parallel situation, or an attempt to explain the source.

And then I meander, wandering back and forth across time, across situations, across related topics. As I’m writing I think that I’m being coherent and that I’m building a comprehensive collage of material but, in reality, it’s a bit of a hot mess.

When I write fiction I can edit as I go. Certainly not all of it, but it feels like a much larger portion than I am able to see when I am writing an essay. And when writing fiction, I can do this without knowing how the story is going to end. With essays I seem to need to reach the end and then define the topic narrowly before I can see some of the edits that need to happen. And even then I need outside help from early readers for me to find some of these things.

Another difference between writing fiction and writing personal essays is that, with essays, I often find that I have written too deeply or too widely. In other words, I’ve rambled on too long on one point or anecdote, or added related memoir or thoughts that don’t contribute significantly to the theme, whereas during the fiction writing and also during the early editing process I usually have a good sense of how deep or how wide to look. During the essay writing process I cast my net wide, feeling around me for anything that has potential to add to the message. I think this is not uncommon for writers of memoir; to write everything that comes to mind and then eliminate what is not necessary in the editing process. For me, as a writer of fiction, this is not typical. My fiction edits tend to be additions or alternatives rather than the removal of large chunks, and I rarely find myself needing to move one or two sentences because I’ve written them in the wrong order or have touched on the same aspect in two different areas, as happens when editing essays.

When I write blog entries I start with a target for the writing, not just a thought to ponder, so I know where I’m going more clearly than when I am writing essays. I tend not to meander quite as wide and I don’t require quite as much personal anecdote for confirmation. It could be the narrower focus right from the start that keeps it from meandering quite as much. On the other hand, maybe the blog entries are wandering and overwritten like my essay drafts and I don’t see it because I don’t have the early readers to tell me.  🙂

So, in spite of my years of writing experience, personal essays do not come out as close to finished as my fiction does. Like many other things, it seems that it is going to require its own practice.

bookmark_borderWriting Backwards

I’m writing backwards.

I’ve tried something similar before, starting from an event, treating it as the effect and then looking for potential causes. And following that with the cause for that cause, and a cause for that cause, and so on.

This time, I have a novel in progress. I pantsed the first half, building on a basic premise and principle characters, throwing ideas and moments and subplots up without deciding on an order or which ones to keep. Once I arrived well past the mid point I spent a few weeks creating revision after revision of the order of the material that had survived to that point. In order to continue, I felt as if I needed to solidify what story I had so far like a foundation for a building.

Then I did some similar pantsing, testing, trying out material and ideas for the rest, but but at some point I got the idea to write an outline of what I’d written so far, in prose, like a Coles or Spark Notes version of a novel. Trying to get some clarity and focus, or just some ideas. And then I tried summarizing what might happen next. I’ve done similar before, with shorter stories. But this time, because it is a novel, it was interesting to read what I was proposing and to try on different possibilities. Because it was prose and not notes, I could feel how various ideas might work or not work. Because of how much time and writing I had spent spinning out material and investigating the main characters, it was easy to project into their futures as if I were watching a  movie to see how well they fit. And because it was an outline, it was easy to move around and revise and try to patch plot holes.

When I arrived at a complete version (and after revising that a few times) I started writing material that might be useful. Oddly, I felt most inclined to write something very near the end; just dialog between one of the characters and two officers from Internal Affairs.

Then I went to the previous paragraph in my outline, and wrote that.

And then another.

So now I’m writing the novel like a plotter. Only I’m writing backwards.

One of the challenges writing backwards is sometimes I have to clarify details. Even though I’ve outlined all the way through I don’t remember the details of what I’m supposed to write. Was the stun gun already mentioned? Do the police have a statement yet? When I write forward I don’t have this problem because the scenes I’ve already written are firm in my mind. They exist like memories, but writing backwards is more like I watched a movie and now I have to remember the order and write the story. The firmness of the sequence of details is not the same as writing forwards because it didn’t happen (wasn’t written) in real time.

I wonder if characters who live time in reverse have this same problem? Or, if they didn’t have an outline they’d be left like someone with dementia, in the future, with no memory of how they got there.

bookmark_borderFinding books to read

I have difficulty finding books to read using our library’s online system. If you know the author or the title it works great, but when you are searching for good novels across various genres written by authors that you have not previously read and only in ebook form and available right now, it’s not as helpful.

I have, in the past, looked up Pulitzer/Booker/Giller/Edgar/Hugo or other longlists in my browser before searching but that’s an extra step that I don’t always have the patience to follow.

My newest approach is to type “novel” in the search field and use the filters to include only ebooks available now. I can also make genre choices to narrow the options. Then I have to rely on the description plus any inclusions in the library’s lists of recommendations as well as random reader reviews to help me decide. The preview option seems to have disappeared which means I have to commit to taking the book out to see what I think.

This process worked the first time. I discovered “Girl at War” by Sara Novic, a story about a ten year old girl living in Zagreb in 1991. I knew nothing about that conflict from the inside but now I have a start. The prose was good and the characters interesting, though the secondary ones felt disposable and some of the plot didn’t feel inevitable. Still, a worthwhile read.

Second novel, “A Noise Downstairs” by Linwood Barclay, was a failure.

This is a thriller that opens with a prologue. I had some reservations with the prose.

“A busted taillight was the kind of thing that undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth. The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor.”

Is this an interesting character observation? Perhaps. But the wording irritated me. The repetition of “undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth” and “would definitely irk Kenneth” is a little cute for this reader, though, if it were left as a parallel sentence construction without the “a math and physics professor” tagged at the end it probably wouldn’t have bothered me.

But the subordinate clause at the end of the paragraph is what sticks out. Remove the analogy of the equation so it reads: “The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor” and it flows better. Or, move the tag to the beginning of the sentence: “As a math and physic professor the car’s lack of back-end-symmetry—the equivalent of an unbalanced equation—would have irked Kenneth” is more subtle and gives more sentence variety. Or explain the connection: “The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth since he was a math and physics professor.” A little too plain and straightforward? ChatGPT says this version emphasizes his profession as the cause for the irk, whereas the original version emphasizes his identity as a professor.

Yes, his expertise is related to the explanation why a broken taillight should have bothered Kenneth (though Google does not give any references to unbalanced equations in physics; maybe the author confused physics with chemistry?) but tagging it as written seems forced, as if the author wanted us to see him check the box for “character vocation” or his justification for why a broken taillight is odd.

This information tag was a red flag, a warning that I shouldn’t expect the highest quality writing. Granted, it is difficult to slip in required context and information to the reader at the opening. The reader needs context but it needs to be worked in naturally and only as required.

I felt as if I were reading a cheap romance novel.

Later, we hear why the main character’s wife did not accompany him to a student theatre performance.

“Charlotte, a real estate agent, begged off. She had a house to show that evening. And frankly, waiting while a prospective buyer checked the number of bedrooms held the promise of more excitement than waiting for Godot.”

Nice joke, maybe intending to show off some humor. But again, this feels forced. If this were a humor story, this degree of forcing would be perfectly acceptable. But, this is supposed to be heading to some sort of thriller tale. To me, a thriller can push the boundaries of what is possible or plausible but only for the needs of the thriller elements of the plot, not to force in a joke.

Two red flags was enough for me. Back to the library it went.


bookmark_borderOn Mahler, Google, and Romanticism

I’m listening to Mahler on Spotify. Randomly selected his 5th Symphony because it came up first.

I’m using it as background music while I’m working, but I started to wonder why I’ve never been a Mahler fan. I stop to pay more attention. It’s the middle of a movement and I probably should have started my attentiveness at the beginning, but I don’t hear classic melodies and development, not that I expected Beethoven, given Mahler’s late Romantic time frame. I hear motifs and fragments being varied and built on, like stream of consciousness writing or a particular style of jazz improvisation where the improvisor is focused on fragments and development. It’s coherent, with a string of logic, but I can’t make sense overall of it. As if someone is talking on and on in English but on a topic I have no experience with.

So I think it would help if I looked at some musical analysis that would point out key elements and how they are being used.

But instead of motifs, developmental techniques, structure, Google’s results seem as if no one understands music theory:

  • “a musical representation of the Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati”?
  • “contains every type of emotion”?
  • “This is country music, by turns ebullient, nostalgic, and a mite parodistic”?

What is this supposed to tell me?

These are like program notes for an orchestra concert. Utterly useless for my purpose.

Or maybe that’s the point; that’s what Google thinks I want for when I search “mahler symphony 5 musical analysis”. It reinterprets my search using searches from everyone else in the world.


Unfortunately, my searches are often not the same as the rest of the world. Nor do I find it useful when Google tries to “help” me.

I’m often searching for information relevant to characters in my stories. Characters in my stories often have extreme lives or are in extreme circumstances. It’s very nice that Google wants to provide help lines and counselling and self-help sites when I search “type of depression” or “extended grief characteristics” but it refuses to give me what I’m searching for, which is information or details, and not pages and pages of help. Sometimes, five pages down I find a site that is sort of useful and there I discover a word or term to force Google to be more useful, and in one of those sites I find another term to force Google closer and maybe I start to find what I’m looking for, fifteen minutes and a dozen dead ends into my search.

Duckduckgo is often better by not trying to be so ‘helpful’ and not reinterpreting my search for me, but it has the problem that enclosing words in quotation marks does not force the search results to always include that word. Quotation marks are taken as “suggestions” and make the word occur “more frequently” in the results.


Fortunately for my Mahler experience I found a two hand reduction of the symphony so I was able to do my own analysis. The first movement makes more sense to me now, yet I’m still left in with the question ‘why’. It still feels like stream of consciousness wanderings in a way that I don’t feel when I listen to Wagner or Strauss, or to works from later composers like Debussy or Schoenberg.

It’s not all so challenging. The fifth movement opens with Copland-esque (yes, I know Copland is decades later) spaces and fragments and then fugatto and I’m good, I can understand ‘why’s in this movement.

Maybe this is like when I only had a superficial appreciation for Mozart until Salieri explained him to me. Or, maybe Mahler is the epitome of late Romanticism and in my depths I’m just not a romantic, the way that I have so much difficulty reading romance genre. Mahler and Danielle Steele?

bookmark_borderDreaming Emotions from the Story

Before I went to sleep last night I wrote a few hundred words in a scene where my main character’s cheek is grazed sparring in karate class. The near miss triggers her and she retaliates, out of control, not pulling and controlling her kick and she hurts her classmate. I also started sketching the next scene where her Sensei has to talk with her after class.

As the writer, I’m playing the role of the triggered heroine who feels confusion and fear and shame but also the roles of the teacher/mentor and of the system/rules/morals. What does the community center require in the case of an injury? What is the Sensei required to say, either per the community center or per the karate association or per karate tradition or per his personal morals and position of leadership? And how does the heroine react to what she has done and to what the Sensei tells her?

I am (kind of sort of) the leader of a fiction writing group. In a dream last night I did something out of bounds, something connected to the group. I don’t remember what the infraction was but I had decided to penalize myself by not allowing myself to attend the next one or possibly the next two group meetings. I had not told anyone about this decision and I’m not even sure who knew of my transgression yet.

In the next scene that I remember a bunch of us (not writing group people) were in a vehicle travelling though a touristy area. We stopped at a store like an ice cream shop that displayed treats behind glass and I ordered something. My father (who in reality passed away at 94 but when he appears in my dreams he’s often in his fifties, which makes sense because I’m usually in my twenties) didn’t think I should be ordering anything. He felt that given what I had done I shouldn’t be allowed a treat but I went ahead and ordered anyway, paying for it myself. I already knew that I planned to penalize myself by missing the next group meeting and that was enough.

So in my dream I played the guilty main character as well as the judge determining my penalty, just as in writing my story I was playing the heroine and the Sensei and the community center.  I’m less clear on the role my father was playing. My writing insecurity? He was a bit off to the side, not directly involved, almost like a reminder. Perhaps my writing group, evaluating my story?

Or the role of the karate association or even the law; some higher authority overriding my judgement? Or the court of public opinion? Or just my father?

And what does it say that I chose to ignore him?

I’m not certain that these scenes are going to stay in the novel. In the drafting stage I’m throwing vignettes against the wall and seeing which ones stick and which ones play well with others. These ones last night were painful to write (and still are as I work with them, filling them out and extending them). I have to experience the regret and shame and confusion inherent in the moments to be able to write them.

I am pushing myself toward these kinds of difficult-to-experience plot choices. Not because it’s good for me personally (it’s like digging at scabs with a knife by myself, as opposed to having a trained surgeon do the work or just using a fingernail). I do this because I hope that these are good for the story. Some of my original ideas were lacking in conflict and were too simple, too safe, too YA-ish. So far I’ve pushed the narrator and her father further apart by making them combative rather than just distant, and I’ve removed a random rapist and instead had an existing character unexpectedly try to rape the heroine, and now have taken a safe and supportive karate club environment and forced a wedge between my narrator and the club by allowing her to snap and lose control and hurt someone.

The goal: to up the stakes, to increase the pressure on the heroine, to make the arc more meaningful, to push the reader along.

bookmark_borderWriting Each Subplot Separately

My plan for my novel includes one primary inciting incident, followed by internal and external struggles, and ending with an opportunity for the protagonist to finish what was interrupted the first time.

But I don’t have a lot of material for the middle, partly because she’s been struggling with this for years prior to the inciting incident.

I am pantsing. I started with an interesting character and wrote some old incidents and some internal narrative where she tries to understand both herself and how she fits into the world. This allowed me to write myself into the story and to learn about her so I have a lot of backstory that shows why her unusual trait is difficult to live with. I don’t want to put all of that before the inciting incident. That would push the incident far back and might risk losing the reader, as if the opening of Star Wars had spent the first half an hour showing Luke’s childhood. The alternative is to put this all as flashback in the middle build but they are stand alone vignettes and internal narrative and lack action and forward propulsion. Too much of that will stall the story.

As I’ve been writing myself into the story I’ve discovered that her relationship with her father is another sub plot. I knew they were distant, I knew some of the reasons why, but as I wrote I felt there was more to it. Now I have a vague plan for this to be revealed and for the protagonist and probably her father as well to understand this and to grow through it and to come out the other side changed. In other words, this is a separate plot with its own arc.

What I enjoy most about writing is solving the puzzles. Once I realized that the relationship with her father is a subplot I also saw that I can decide the structure after I write the three plot lines: the main one, and her internal struggle before and after the inciting incident, and her relationship with her father. I can write them as three separate stories and figure out how to merge them and what order to present them to the reader after they’re done or nearly done.

Life, even a fictional character’s life, does not always nicely follow the three act or hero’s journey structure.

This feels good, meaning, quite possibly the right solution.

It is freeing to see this because it gives me some direction but it also allows me to write the plots separately. I don’t have to worry about the opening or when the backstory should appear or about generating more middle. I can continue pantsing, exploring more aspects of the characters and trying out more history and building a more complete psychological and family profile given what I already know and the circumstances that have already befallen them and what I anticipate happening soon. My hope is that parts of the two sub plots will fit naturally into the middle build filling it out so I don’t have to scramble around for more material.

The advantage of using Scrivener to write is that it will be easy for me to use three separate folders and then play around with different sequences when I try merging them. I’ll even try arranging everything sequentially and see how that feels once I get close to a complete first draft. And maybe a late inciting incident will work for this story since there is an earlier incident that plays in both of the other two plots. At this moment, though, I don’t see that the earlier one can be the primary incident since it doesn’t play a role in the main story except as context. It’s true that her development is the basis of the story but the inciting incident of the main plot is what pushes her to a crisis point, and I’d like to start near the end of the story.


It’s fun to be inside the world of a novel.

I haven’t been this far inside the creation of a new novel in a very long time. Around 2013 I started to focus on improving my prose which led to shorter works. At the time I had a novel in the works but I had difficulty with the ending so I put it aside. Last spring I picked it up and finished it, but finishing an old novel was a different experience than the creation process that I’m in now.

In 2015 I wrote a few chapters of a story that I felt had the potential to drive a novel. For NaNoWriMo 2022 I picked that up and wrote into it, meaning I wrote any scenes or internal narrative that I could think of to expand or to help define the character and her situation as I understood it (and in the process, I redefined my understanding). There was other unrelated NaNo writing too but I came out with 10,000 new words of character thoughts, interactions with other characters, background moments or scenes or information for the story. I felt as if I was throwing anything and everything against a wall to see what sticks.

Some have stuck, for now, and others have moved into a Scrivener folder I call “Not ready for prime time”; material where I’m no longer confident that the event or characters or voice is a good fit. Since then I’ve added another 10,000 words of potential story, I’ve made character and plot theories, and done new or additional research on coyotes, on grief recovery, histrionics, parentification, and myths. I’ve done Story Grid analysis and decided it’s primarily a morality story with horror elements which gives me some hints in terms of plot and character and character arc targets. I have a tentative skeleton of major actions.

And I have a list of more than twenty moments that I think I should write. Most of these are not ones that tie into the primary plot. Instead they are further defining her situation and key traits and secondary characters to be layered in before and during what I see as the call to action. I write these moments when I feel I have sufficient research or sense of the voice or ways to get at them.

The list makes it easy to see whether every aspect of her personality and situation is being represented and to keep track without doing the writing yet. Something like an outline, except I have no idea about the order. This makes it seem like the story is a character sketch, and it is. I’m writing as if I were sketching and organizing a memoir, which is, I think, the way a novel should be written. I suspect some of these will need to be pruned or merged once I’ve got a complete draft but if get them all down at least I have them available for consideration.

At the same time I’m plucking at these moments and at other things such as the themes, and at unclear elements like characters who have not appeared yet, or traits of existing characters that don’t feel right, and at my research notes, and at targets like the Story Grid elements, and at my hopes for what I want the reader to get from the story. I’m plucking at all these things to see if to see if they will provide more moments to write.

I’m inside the character, feeling around for memories and thoughts and experiences to show who she is and why. I’m doing the same with secondary characters and with my character’s situation and with the proposed plot and with themes too, searching around inside for consistencies and inconsistencies and weaknesses and logical outgrowths and trying to figure out how to show these. And trying to make connections, trying to choose pieces that will hold together, trying to make it all make sense.

I’m getting buried within the novel and it’s a lot of fun. A novel is a much bigger world than a short story so it takes longer, and the longer you live with it, the more it becomes an alternative reality that you also live in.

bookmark_borderPerchance, to Sleep

Over the past few years I’ve had difficulty staying asleep. A dream might shock me awake, or, more often, sleep will slip away as if it were a veil and someone simply drew it from my face.

There seems to be popular times for this. 4 AM tops the list, followed by 2 AM, followed by 5:30 or 6 AM which is awkward given that I normally get up at 7:30. This might happen even two or three times in one evening up to four or five nights in a row. If it gets to that point, I’m struggling to get through the day and will have to crash for a nap.

In order to go back to sleep, I’ve learned that I need to keep from wandering through various rabbit holes. I need to focus. Focus on something simple yet complicated enough to keep my attention. Something visual and simple like counting sheep but a little more challenging to keep my mind’s attention.

These worked for me, for a time:

  1. Count your breaths, from one to ten and repeat, while visualizing the numbers (Arabic or Roman) – I worry that this is too close to basic mediation and I don’t want any future attempt to learn to meditate to be disrupted by this.
  2. Count breaths backward from ten to one, and visualize.
  3. Count breaths forward in another language, and visualize. – This works better. In the process I’ve become more fluent with my French, Japanese, and German counting.
  4. Count breaths backward in another language, and visualize.

These sound simple but it takes work to get my nighttime mind to stay with the plan. My mind wants to meander over residue from the previous day or to worry about the next. I need to focus, to be mindful and it will work.

But each of these methods have worn out over time. They became less effective, which is why I needed to make it more difficult. Partly it was me becoming better at counting in French, Japanese, and German, even backwards, but the predictability of the sequences made it too easy.

Now, I’ve modified it, again. Now I pick three digits, like 937, and do the sequence in English twice, then French twice, then Japanese, then German. Then, three more digits, different than the previous three, again in the four languages. Finally, the remaining three. I don’t know zero in the other languages and ten is not a single digit so I avoid that.

Once I’m done, I have worked myself into a state that allows me to go back to sleep, most of the time.

It works, for now, until that gets too easy.

bookmark_borderMe, on CBC

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently published an article I wrote: “We Let Our Father Die”.

It was the most viewed piece on CBC that day. Early in the morning it was being read by over a thousand readers, more than twice the next most. Later it was even higher and still more than twice as many readers as the latest from the Ukraine. By evening it had dropped to a little over 400 but that was still ahead of the next most read article at 275.

Apparently the story was trending so hard that if you started Google on your cell phone in Vancouver the article would be within the top few suggestions.

Comments were open. I logged in and liked all the pleasant ones; the ones wishing me well or thanking me for writing about the topic but I did not reply or do more as they continued. There were over 200 when comments were closed.

This was much more than I expected. I am pleased for the CBC and for my producer that it did so well for them. I am pleased that it touched something that many people had an interest in and a desire to talk to and talk about. I am pleased that something that I wrote (with much assistance from my editor since I have no journalism and little non-fiction writing experience) was read by thousands of people.

I am also pleased that my contact information *was not included*.

I am not an activist. I don’t want to participate in discussions about grief or MAID or about similar stories or situations. I don’t want be considered an expert. Neither do I need to be healed, especially by strangers by long distance.

I am happy the story resonated with readers but I’m also happy I am not required to reply to their comments. That would be not only exhausting but triggering.

During a discussion I nearly snapped when someone attempted to help. They explained why I shouldn’t feel bad, that I “had done the right thing so I shouldn’t feel xxx or yyy.” I was furious and about to leave the meeting to stop myself from saying how angry they were making me, but they stopped.

They were trying make me feel better. But they were doing so by trying to convince me that my reactions were wrong, that I shouldn’t feel what I felt because … and I don’t even remember which of the arguments they used: my father was 94, people didn’t used to live this long, he had a DNR, his quality of life had diminished so much, he wasn’t likely to improve, or their parent had been in a similar situation and they had told them … I don’t remember. I was too angry.

I was surprised by my reaction. I thought I was past the emotional parts. When I worked on the last revision of the article I noticed I was trying to edit in past tense: “I felt…”, “I was…” instead of I feel guilty, I am angry, because those emotions weren’t active any longer. I kept the revision in present tense though because those feelings were active when I wrote them down.

Evidently it is a wound that can still be opened.

There is a difference between a few comments among many posted in a setting where I don’t have to respond, versus listening to them from someone I know. And a difference between suggestions or considerations being offered, versus being told a story with the implication that it is the same thing that you experienced with a different reaction or that your emotions are wrong because you’re not seeing your story the way someone else sees it.

What soothed me was to skim through the article comments later, probably paying more attention to the reassuring and supportive ones: the “thank you for sharing”, the “I felt the same way” ones.

Apparently the salve for being told your feelings are wrong, is feeling heard.

bookmark_borderCheating Writers’ Block: Getting the Story Un-Stuck by Seeing Outside the Box

Looking from inside the character or story and trying to see what’s next can be difficult. Trying to visualize what is going to happen or what needs to happen based on tensions and history and theme is a lot like method acting except that the author has no script to follow. And yet as a pantser this is what I try to do to forage ahead in a story.

(this is a continuation from the previous post where I recently experimented with listing bad plot ideas to help me find a way forward with my stories)

This is the box I sometimes get trapped in.

It is difficult to foretell the characters’ future and the story’s future. The author needs to have one foot inside the character (or characters) and another inside the story (as if the story is another character). From inside, it can be hard to foresee destiny. To see around the corner, to solve what’s going to happen is not always easy in life, nor when writing fiction.

As individuals we can try to guess who might be at the party Friday night or whether we will get the job we interviewed for. As readers and movie watchers we can try to predict what’s going to happen: will the officer wearing the red uniform in Star Trek be killed, will the heroine face challenges but end up with her soul-mate? But some of the most satisfying stories do not allow us to predict the outcome so easily but when we get there it feels inevitable.

It makes sense, then, if it’s hard to see one’s own future and if unpredictable outcomes are desirable, an author should also struggle to get there.

This is why making a list of bad plot ideas is useful. Not ‘bad’ as in negative outcomes such as being embarrassed at a party but bad as in outlandish, or random, or cliché.

Because I’m looking for ideas to throw away, these bad ideas have no expected value and carry less judgement and less attachment and the range of results is open much wider. I am flung outside the box and into the realm of the useless, the ridiculous, the boring, the politically incorrect, the racist/homophobic/misanthropic or fantasy/SF/horror/porn/thriller or other outside-the-given-genre based outcomes.

This tactic has similarities to mind-mapping or brainstorming because I’m foraging for ideas but the difference is that I’m intentionally trying to find bad ideas, ones that are silly or barely connected or so far out there they don’t make much sense. I’m trying to stretch as far away from my material (and the writer’s block) as I can.

After I have 12 or 15 bad ideas I work through why each alternative won’t work. Why exactly does it not fit the existing characters or situation or genre or theme? Doing so gives me a clearer definition of what it is that I am looking for, but more importantly, I find that some of the ideas—sometimes with some tweaking or in combination with others—are not impossible. The benefit of now building the plot from modified ‘bad ideas’ is that they may be surprising to the reader. They were, after all, outside the range of what the author had been able to conceive from inside the box.


Alternatively, Emma Coats of Pixar tweeted a list of writing advice. Number 9 is: “When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.”

If that works for you, use it. I read that advice years ago and it didn’t work for me. Maybe what was meant by “wouldn’t happen next” is the same as my list of bad ideas but I interpreted “wouldn’t happen” as a negative, in other words, something that moves the story backward or blocks it. Nemo gets caught in a net and end of story, for example, or Buzz Lightyear becomes inanimate and unable to speak or move. Things that, as the writer, I wouldn’t have happen next.

Those certainly are bad ideas but they are also story killer ideas. Maybe you could work off those and eventually end up with Nemo being put in an aquarium or Buzz and Woody being taken by another child but that’s a long ways to go.

I prefer to take the skeleton of my existing plot and try to connect to it from other genres or from clichés or from random events. That’s been enough to help me find my way to useful combinations of modified bad ideas and to find a way forward with some story fragments that were stuck.